Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Four Rules for Using Assertive Communication to Stand Up to Bullies

As sure as kids go back to school each Fall in the U.S., bullying will be encountered in the classroom each school year. In these early days of Fall classes, would-be bullies are getting a feel for who they think might be an easy mark in the class. As the days wear on and a bully confirms that he or she can pick on specific classmates without their standing up for themselves, the bullying escalates.

Assertive responses are particularly effective in countering bullying because the child who masters this type of direct, emotionally-honest communication demonstrates that a bully’s attacks will be answered in a fair, but formidable way. Finding the initial target to be too powerful to provoke, the bully will most often move on.

Parents can teach their kids these four rules for using assertive communication to stand up to bullying behavior.

Rule 1: Don’t Go it Alone

A bully’s main strategy is to make a victim feel alone and powerless. The best way to counter a bully’s strategy is to tell a helpful adult about what is going on and ask for that adult’s support. When a bully realizes that he will not be able to keep a victim isolated—that the victim is strong enough to reach out and connect with others—the bully begins to lose power.

Sometimes adults fail to acknowledge the seriousness of bullying, but more often, grown-ups are not aware of what is going on. These days, bullies use the internet and other behind-the-scenes ways to hurt others that tend not to be noticed by adults. It is a kid’s job to create awareness in adults about bullying.

Rule 2: Don’t Wait!

Bullying usually begins in a relatively mild form—name calling, teasing, or minor physical aggression—then becomes more serious when the bully realizes that his victim is not going to stand up for himself. The longer a bully has power over a victim, the stronger the hold becomes.

Taking action against the bully—and taking it sooner rather than later—is the best way to gain and retain power.

Rule 3: Don’t Beat Around the Bush!

The more a bully thinks he can pick on a victim without a direct response, the more he will do it. Assertiveness is the essential middle ground between aggressive comebacks that invite further conflict and passive responses that allow personal boundaries to be violated. Simple, straightforward, unemotional responses are effective in standing up to bullies because they portray confidence.

Rule 4: Don’t Mix Signals!

Assertive responses combine the use of direct words with assertive body language and tone of voice. Use a calm, even tone of voice when talking to a bully, in order to show confidence. Stand an appropriate distance from the bully to demonstrate that you are not easily intimidated. Lastly, look a bully directly in the eye. Maintaining eye contact is a mark of emotionally honest and direct communication.

Signe Whitson, LSW is the author of How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens and Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying, to be published in November 2011. This article features excerpts from both books. For more ideas on how to bullyproof your kids, please visit her website at

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